WMC Women Under Siege

Disability: A major hurdle on the migration route for women refugees

The woman looked uneasy and uncomfortable as she peered outside her tent into the darkness. All she could see was an empty stretch with a few bushes, where men were taking turns to urinate. There was nothing—no facilities—available for women.

This was the situation nine months ago at the border of Serbia and Hungary, when I visited a refugee camp where men, women, and children were stuck for days. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then, and for one hidden segment of refugee society, life is even harder than this.

Sanitation is a huge problem for all refugees, but the issue and so many others are massively multiplied for women refugees who are disabled.

A sick girl lies in a UNICEF-supported health center in a refugee camp in Central African Republic. But many women and girl refugees lack access to this kind of health care. (Pierre Holtz/UNICEF)

People with disabilities and special needs make up about 30 percent of the total population of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, according to findings of a survey published in 2014 by the London-based independent aid organization HelpAid. Of the more than 3,000 refugees surveyed, the group found that 45 percent of those with special needs had “problems in accomplishing simple daily living activities.” Besides unsanitary conditions, women refugees in general are also particularly vulnerable to abuse, emotional violence, and sexualized violence. And about a third of women with disabilities experience psychological, sexual, or physical abuse in natural disasters and conflicts, according to a 2015 report by Handicap International, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that supports people with disabilities in conflict and disaster zones. The report was generated through online surveys that collected nearly 800 responses from persons with disabilities, disabled persons’ organizations, and humanitarian actors. Physical or sexual abuse accounted for 16 percent of the responses.

“Women with disabilities who are isolated in their homes are particularly at risk of sexualized violence and rape, as are girls with intellectual disabilities,” said a February 2016 report by the New York-based nonprofit Women’s Refugee Commission. “The stigma associated with being raped makes many women and girls reluctant to report such violence and many are also unable to report it because they have little interaction with people outside their immediate family or immediate environment.”

According to a joint field study conducted in November 2015 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Women’s Refugee Commission in the refugee camps of Greece and Macedonia, the conditions for refugees are not even close to adequate. They lack privacy, safe sanitation and health facilities, and sleeping areas for women and children.

Nawael, a 34-year-old woman who fled to Greece from Syria, told Human Rights Watch in May that she, her husband, and her children had traveled the dangerous route that most migrants take to get to Europe, the report said. They were now at an informal refugee camp set up at the Athens port of Piraeus. But, she said, the journey was more difficult for them than many others.

Nawael told HRW that finding medical and toilet facilities along the route was very challenging, and her husband carried her most of the time. Now in Greece, she slept “inside an overcrowded passenger waiting area at the port, with just a few blankets on the ground as a mattress, and next to the toilets in order to access them easily.” It was difficult to wash herself due to the lack of space in the showers, HRW reported, and she hadn’t bathed in a month.

Nawael is in a wheelchair. She became paralyzed after being hit by an air strike in Syria. “Here, it is very hard for me to go to the toilet,” she told HRW. “My husband helps me at the door, and random women help me inside the toilet.”

In April, a team from Amnesty International was granted access to two closed detention centers in Greece. The team interviewed 89 people and observed dozens others. They reported speaking to or seeing “a small baby with complications after an attack in Syria, heavily pregnant women, people who are unable to walk, and a young girl with a developmental disability.”

Medical help for those with disabilities or injuries in refugee areas is scarce. One family told the team about how they had struggled to get assistance for their daughter, 8, who had a hipbone infection. The infection, they said, had gotten worse and requires treatment. Their two attempts to seek medical help failed.

“She’s always in pain,” the girl’s mother said.

The detention centers on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios “are not in any way fit for purpose for the many young children, people with disabilities, or people with urgent medical needs we’ve met. They must be released immediately,” said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director for Europe at Amnesty International in April.

As the refugee crisis moves into yet another hot summer and the numbers of desperate people arriving at underequipped ports and borders grow, women with disabilities continue to suffer with very little recognition from the outside world, and with very little help.

More articles by Category: Disability, International, Violence against women, WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Rape



Priyali Sur
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